© S. Silvestri et al.No hiding place
Move over Erin Brockovich. Today's environmental detectives can use radar, helicopters and even satellite images to help them spot illegal toxic waste dumps and help catch those responsible.
Ironically, the tightening of restrictions on waste disposal and the enforcement of new recycling laws have made illegal dumping more likely, turning it into big business for the criminals involved.
The trouble is digging up suspect dumps to investigate their contents can release toxins into local water supplies. But with new remote-sensing techniques, such as ground-penetrating radar (GPR), you can find toxic trash without disturbing the soil. Instead, you bounce microwaves off buried materials and the strength of returning signals provides clues to what they are.
Alastair Ruffell, a forensic geologist at Queen's University, Belfast in the UK, has used GPR in 17 cases for the environment agencies of Scotland, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Most are ongoing, however three have resulted in the culprits being jailed and fined.
Ruffell's latest research shows that geophysical techniques can be used to characterise the waste (Environmental Forensics
, DOI: link
). GPR surveys suggested the presence of a highly conductive waste such as farmyard slurry in a peat bog in Northern Ireland, simply because the suspect pocket in the bog reflected no microwaves.